Notre Dame named Ian Book its starting quarterback on Sept. 22. Two days later, Clemson made a similar call in promoting Trevor Lawrence into the starting role, ahead of an established starter fresh off an Atlantic Coast Conference championship and berth in the College Football Playoff.
The most obvious theme that binds together the Irish and Tigers in advance of the Cotton Bowl is the difficult choice each coaching staff made at the game’s most crucial position: At a moment when both could’ve stayed the course under center, Brian Kelly and Dabo Swinney opted to roll the dice behind unproven backups before the end of the season’s opening month.
“That’s why we recruited him, ” Swinney said of Lawrence. “It was pretty clear in the spring that this guy is going to be special. ”
Each coach has looked brilliant in hindsight. Book has lifted Notre Dame’s offense to new heights, with a polished arm and sneaky athleticism the perfect recipe for a scheme predicated on intelligent quarterback play. Lawrence has played far beyond his years, with 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions as a true freshman tasked with maintaining college football’s greatest dynasty this side of Tuscaloosa. While neither starter brings ample starting experience in to the Cotton Bowl, that fits into the story of this year’s playoff: All of the quarterbacks involved are first-year starters.
The team that may rattle the opposing quarterback will win the Cotton Bowl. That’s easier said than done, needless to say. One may think that Lawrence would stumble at least once as a freshman. That simply hasn’t happened. He was fantastic because the backup to Kelly Bryant, who has since opted to transfer, and equally consistent upon his transfer to the starting lineup. Book has been a revelation, as an under-recruited prospect who ascended up the depth chart in September and contains since tossed 19 touchdowns while completing more than 70 percent of his attempts.
The Tigers’ sense of security is due to the nation’s most effective defensive line. It’s this group which should worry Notre Dame heading into the postseason: Clemson has four future NFL players in its starting lineup and an uncomfortable wealth of riches in reserve. Senior Christian Wilkins and junior Dexter Lawrence key the inside while senior Austin Bryant, junior Clelin Ferrell and freshman Xavier Thomas bring pressure from the edges. Combined, it is a wealth of talent no team on Clemson’s schedule has had the opportunity to handle.
“You have to go take it from their website, ” Kelly said. “They are not going to give it for you. ”
Notre Dame has faced off with similarly gifted defensive fronts, most notably in its season-opening win against Michigan. Overall, the Irish have allowed 19 sacks on the year, good for 29th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. But Clemson will provide a different test. How well the Irish respond to the Tigers’ pressure from end to end is likely the Cotton Bowl’s deciding factor.
Then again, this is a Notre Dame team that has quietly built a reputation to match its lofty place in the final rankings. The Irish were doubted more than once in the regular season — to Michigan in the opener, even to Stanford and Syracuse deeper into the year. From September through November, the Irish have taken care of immediately doubts about their capability to match wits with the country’s best by unveiling some impressive wins. Consider the 36-3 win contrary to the Orange, like which light emitting diode Syracuse coach Dino Babers to compare Notre Dame favorably to Clemson. Remember that shared opponent: Clemson beat Syracuse 27-23 at home, because of a late touchdown, as the Irish cruised by 33 points on a neutral field.
“It’s amazing what they’ve finished with the schedule they’ve had, ” Swinney said of Notre Dame.
In other words, the theory that Clemson will roll through Notre Dame and into the Playoff title game isn’t rooted in reality. On paper, the pairing is far more even than the odds might lead one to believe — Clemson came out as a double-digit favorite.
Like Clemson, the Irish win by owning the line of scrimmage. Notre Dame ranks 33rd nationally in carries per game and 32nd in rushing touchdowns. On defense. the Irish rank eighth in yards allowed per play. The defense allowed 2. 6 yards per carry in games against ranked competition. Each team will attempt the set the tone by controlling the point of attack; how Notre Dame handles Clemson’s pressure from its defensive line is likely the game’s deciding factor.
So this national semifinal differs in one key respect from the other, an Orange Bowl meeting of Alabama and Oklahoma. That game will be played in fast-forward, between two offenses looking to score the other out of contention. In comparison, the Cotton Bowl will be a throwback: Clemson and Notre Dame battling in the trenches, and may the stronger team win.